Smartphone Switchers: Mobile users on the move

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Pros and cons: Why I switched from iPhone to Android, Part 3

For me, switching phones didn’t involve a dramatic moment of decision. It was a gradual process. I carried both the Samsung Galaxy S III and my iPhone 4S around every day for a couple of months and I kept both of them synced with the same apps and data. Any time I needed a screen in my hand, I could pull out whichever device I wanted.

It wasn’t long before I noticed that I was almost always choosing the Samsung. Usually, I went for the iPhone when I needed a piece of data that could only easily sync between Apple devices: things like Reminders, and documents stored in iCloud. I switched those services over to platform-agnostic alternatives, which arguably is something I should have done even if I’d stuck with iOS.

After that, I’d only pull out my iPhone for one reason: to take a photo. The iPhone continues to kick the butts of all challengers as a camera.

I noticed that I was charging the Samsung every night and that the battery in the iPhone was lasting a whole week or more. And that’s when I realized that I needed to get over a totally fake, self-absorbed stigma (“But…I’m an iPhone user. This other phone isn’t an iPhone!”) and get on with it.

But I’m actually a bit of a wimp, aren’t I? I stepped off of one nice boat and onto another.

If you’re not a tech columnist and you don’t have the option of experimenting with Android and Windows Phone and Blackberry 10 without first making a two-year commitment, switching from any device platform to any other requires a leap of faith and a period of itchy uncertainty. You’ll dog-paddle through choppy seas until once again there’s a steady teak deck under your feet and an umbrella drink in your hand.

In the meantime, yeah: you’re going to swallow a lot of seawater. A transition to Android is particularly tough because so many of the platform’s problems are so well known and emphatically repeated.

I’ve heard them all. Hell, I’m probably one of the tech columnists who originated some of those same criticisms; I’ve written about and reviewed every edition of Android and every wave of phones since the beginning. But it’s 2013 and nearly all flagship phones ship with Android 4.1 or 4.2. Most of the problems I complained about from 2009 to 2011 have been solved, or else they’re no longer nearly as serious as they once were.

And that observation was just as important a factor in my decision to switch as any of the four big Android features I wrote about in parts 1 and 2. When Google addressed these deal-breaking complaints, they put Android in a position where the right phone could be an attractive option for me.

Fragmentation

Fragmentation (the problem of releasing one piece of software that works on such a bewildering range of devices) is an issue with the release of Android OS updates. I’ll have more to say about this later.

Fragmentation doesn’t seem to affect the Google Play app library, however. I use the same broad collection of apps with every Android phone I test, and I can’t remember the last time I encountered one that doesn’t work on all devices. Even games, which make intense and specific demands of the hardware, are a “one size fits all” release. Accessing Android apps is no different from accessing iOS apps: it’s all one big pool, provided that your phone runs a modern edition of the OS.

Malware

Malware is certainly a threat, but after a year’s worth of wary exploration of the subject, I believe it to be a manageable one.

The quantity of Android malware cited in reports from Trend Micro (a maker of security software) and other researchers is shocking. The details of Android malware tell a more reassuring story. It’s a familiar one: if you don’t want to unwittingly install malware on your phone, don’t install pirated software. That’s the primary vector for malicious Android software.

Further, if you only use Android’s canonical app repository (Google Play), the numbers say you’ll avoid 99.5 percent of all Android malware. Want to drop the risk to almost nil? Spend all of five or ten seconds looking at the app description in the Play Store before installing. Play Store app descriptions contain much more information (including a ballpark on the number of downloads, and a list of the permissions the app requests) than the iTunes App Store. For maximum safety, avoid apps with few downloads and few reviews.

Android phones can be jailbroken (in a sense) to run unsigned software just by digging into the prefs and flipping a switch (another example of the choice, choice, choice offered by Android). That increases the risks. Android phones can also be pwned through malicious links (via sites, emails, or texts), like any other phone.

But the bottom line is this: Yes, an Android phone is less safe than an iPhone… but that doesn’t make it “unsafe.” The best practices I use when installing new software on an Android device are no different from what I use with my iPhone. Overall, I don’t feel as though my Galaxy S III is any riskier to use.

Does the increased risk from malware make Android tougher for me to recommend to novice users? Sure. But the iPhone already wins that recommendation well before the issue of security hits the table.

Stability and Reliability

Android is less stable and reliable than iOS, but that doesn’t make it “unstable and unreliable.” I need to force-reboot my iPhone about ten times a year. On Android, it’s… mmmmaybe twenty five? So yes, it’s a higher number on Android, but no, both devices need a kick in the head so infrequently that I can never recall the last time I administered one.

Flickr: allaboutgeorge

And the frequency of app crashes are probably even closer. The main difference is that an iOS app crashes elegantly: it simply fades backwards into the app launcher, like one of the upper-class dames on “Downton Abbey” fainting into a chaise lounge upon hearing frightful news.

An Android app crashes, sometimes with a dialog box and an error code, even. There’s an argument to be made that Android is more helpful than iOS in death. When an iOS app keeps crashing, all a user can do is wait for the developer to release a bug fix, or delete the app (and all of its associated data) and reinstall it from the App Store. An Android user can see if a web search for the error code turns up an explanation of what went wrong and how to fix it. An advanced Android user can also take an active role in fixing the problem if he or she wishes, by manually clearing app caches and stores.

That said, yeah, the user would probably have preferred that the app never crashed to begin with. Anyway. Overall, I give iOS a grade of A- for stability and reliability. Android gets a B+. It’s a difference that shows up easily on a yearly spreadsheet but it’s difficult for me to see the iOS advantage in day-to-day usage.

Where are the apps?

Android’s App Store isn’t as rich as the iTunes App Store, but the two are damn close. I wouldn’t have switched if I couldn’t find the apps I needed to make the Galaxy S III do everything I was doing with my iPhone.

Even some of my favorite obscure iOS apps are on Android.

Most of the time, I could find feature-equal Android versions of the same apps I had been using in iOS. When I couldn’t, I found Android substitutes that I liked just as much or even more. BeyondPod is as good as Downcast, and Press is the Google Reader app that I kept hoping to find for my iPhone.

I just can’t name a single iOS-exclusive app that’s important enough to me that it would prevent me from switching.

That’s a subjective call, of course. Plenty of people define their phones as “the host organism for OmniFocus.” Samsung could give away free unlocked Galaxy S IIIs in every box of Cheerios and it wouldn’t convince those folks to switch. Also, games produced by smaller studios are typically “iOS first” or even “iOS only.” I’m not a serious gamer, so that limitation doesn’t affect me.

The sole significant limitation of the Android app library, as I experience it, is that the very best apps available on iOS are usually better than the very best apps available on Android. Mostly I’m thinking of the apps that Apple creates in-house. iPhoto, iMovie, and iWork are breathtaking achievements; each is an example of a developer working through the limitations of a teensy handheld device. I can’t think of examples that correlate in the Android library.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as “iOS apps are better.” I find that it’s no longer universally true that iOS apps are better designed than Android apps. Indeed, most of the top mobile apps available cross-platform have absolutely identical user interfaces across all devices.

Nor is it true that the Android editions of successful apps usually arrive long after the iOS release, or not at all. iOS has an edge there, but I find it to be a small one. The real advantage of the iOS app library is that new ideas usually land there first, and then they arrive on Android after a successful incubation period. Android users have Flipboard and Instagram and Path, but they had to wait for 'em.

I was pretty surprised and thrilled by this example: pClock, one of my favorite iOS apps of all time. You’d expect to see Evernote or Waze or other big-studio apps in both app stores. But even this tiny, esoteric app (it helps me keep track of time when I’m giving a presentation) is available for Android. I’m just not hurting for apps in any way.

The Price Of Android

Security, Stability, and Software. I can’t say that Android is superior to iOS in any of these categories. But it’s so close now that none of them presented any sort of obstacle to switching. The difference is so slight that they were easily obliterated by the advantages of Android, as I perceived it.

Which isn’t to say that Android devices are the best phones that anybody can buy, or (oh my word, no) that the platform is free of nuttiness and frustrations.

OS Fragmentation

The largest problem with Android by far is the fragmentation of the platform for OS updates. When Apple fixes bugs or adds features to iOS, every iPhone receives it simultaneously. Android users only get this kind of simplicity and security if they own a Nexus-branded device. Those phones receive their system updates directly from Google.

The Samsung Galaxy S III shipped in late spring, with Android 4.0 preinstalled. Google started shipping Nexus devices with Android 4.1 in July. By the time AT&T pushed the update to my phone in December, T-Mobile S III owners had already had it for a month… and Google had begun shipping Nexus devices with Android 4.2.

Amazing, isn’t it? And the Galaxy S III isn’t some freak media player manufactured in North Korea. It’s the hottest Android phone from the market’s dominant maker of Android devices. Sure, I’m confident that the Galaxy S III will receive updates for the entire natural life of the device. But I’m just as confident that this is going to be a pain in the butt forever.

And who’s responsible for bug fixes? Another major hassle. Even a patch for a critical problem has to pass through several turnstiles before I’ll receive it. First, Google fixes Android. Then, Samsung gets the fix, and it applies it to its own OS distribution. AT&T gets the update from Samsung, and then, finally, it’s pushed to the customers.

Lots can go wrong at any step of the process…and this example assumes that Google and Samsung and AT&T don’t waste time bickering about where the problem is.

Pre-Installed Carrier Junk Apps

Another terrible problem with Android: bloatware and crapware.

Kate Vandenberghe

Phones often come preinstalled with page after page of apps and onscreen widgets that offer no benefit to the user, and which try to trick them into using their carrier’s paid services instead of the free alternatives bundled with Android. Some carriers even lock these apps to the device, so they can’t be removed.

The Galaxy S III is (largely) uncontaminated by this practice, because Samsung decided to impose some discipline. Nexus devices are free of crapware because Google wants to maintain the brand as “pure Android.” But God help an inexperienced user who walks into a store and picks up any of the Android devices at the other end of this spectrum. They’re right to wonder why the Home screen of the app launcher contains a huge NASCAR widget, instead of a shortcut to the web browser.

Power Management

I wish that Android phones were as aggressive about protecting battery life as iOS. Many Android apps can get away with keeping the GPS radio powered up long after it’s needed, for example. iOS keeps a steel ruler at the ready. It raps the knuckles of an app at the first sign of power-greedy behavior.

The Galaxy S III delivers about the same battery life as I got with iPhone 5, or the iPhone 4S. But its battery has half again the capacity of the iPhone. I wonder how much longer it would last if Android provided better power management.

That Camera!

This isn’t an Android fault per se. But dear Lord, how I miss the iPhone’s camera!

I performed some meticulous cross-platform camera tests last fall. I posted a series of blind comparisons to my Flickr account and was pleased to find that readers often picked a Galaxy S III photo over one from the iPhone 5.

Fab. But you don’t prize a camera for taking great photos outdoors on a sunny day. The iPhone can take decent photos under anything but the most wretched of circumstances. That’s why I still often carry my iPhone 4S with me. It’s a tiny camera that takes terrific photos and it has both iPhoto and WiFi.

The iPhone is still the only phone that has what I consider “a real camera” as opposed to “an excellent smartphone camera.” Both Nokia and HTC have made solid first steps towards bringing their cameras up to that standard. But while they're pointing to their cameras as a signature feature and an object of pride, only Apple is backing up those claims with camera that's truly great from wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

Next page: Yep, I'm an Android user

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